I’ve split up my thoughts on Cambodia (focused around the cities of Phnom Penh and Siem Reap) into more bite-sized chunks, with this part focusing on the food and beverage.
Cambodia really opened my eyes to the dynamic beauty, yet inequality present in the world that we live in. We have parts of the world working on things like artificial intelligence, drone delivery, self-driving cars and plans for living on Mars, yet places like Cambodia still have real struggles with poverty, food, roads and infrastructure. Sure, it’s a realization many hope we can understand from afar, but seeing it up close really made it hit home for me. It was really thought provoking… how can I do more to help others that are less fortunate? In Cambodia, right when you leave the airport, you instantly see all the brands and investments in trying to be “first” in the market… does Cambodia need Krispy Kreme now?
Khmer cuisine is quite similar to a lot of the countries surrounding it, like Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. The star ingredients of Khmer cuisine are few and indigenous, mainly based on a basic diet of rice and fish, abundant and coming from sustenance provided by the Mekong river. Many of the spices, veggies and sauces found in Khmer cuisine historically come from Cambodia’s many interlopers and migrants, such as the French, Chinese, Thai, Vietnamese, etc. A lot of Khmer dishes make heavy use of fermented ingredients. The result is a cuisine that is a melange of many different cultures. The food is pungent, yet fragrant and strikingly familiar if you’ve ever eaten food in other countries in the region. I really enjoyed dishes like amok, salty fish based dishes like mam lahong, the many wonderful spicy, herb laden soups and some really kickass noodles.
Cambodians also snack on insects, like cockroaches, silkworms and spiders, and most of the time they are fried. A bunch of it is quite tasteless, like eating dried flavourless squid or something, but I guess it’s very high in protein…
There’s a lot of Western food in Cambodia. Western fare is surprisingly really good there, often recommended by locals and expats alike. I probably had the best Mexican food I’ve ever had in my life in Cambodia.
I was surprised to learn that cannabis is an ingredient deeply rooted in Khmer cuisine. It’s legal to eat cannabis, but illegal to smoke it. Therefore, many take the drug recreationally by eating it on pizza. The pizza joints (no pun intended) are normally unassuming, don’t advertise their “budding” qualities and will normally serve you regular pizza… unless you ask them to, “make it happy.”
Subtle Bourdain. Real subtle.
Some Restaurant Recommendations
David’s Homemade Noodles (Cambodia / Asian handmade noodles)
Ngon Restaurant (Cambodian food)
Malis Restaurant (Cambodian food)
Alma (Mexican food)
Ecstatic Pizza (weed pizza – it’s on a street with several other similar shops)
Il Forno (Great Italian food)
Khmer Kitchen Restaurant (Cambodian)
Pyongyang Restaurant (a restaurant actually RUN by the North Korean government)
Amok Restaurant (Cambodian)
In Phnom Penh, if you’re a regular tourist, you’ll probably spend some nights at Riverside, where expats, backpackers and the ilk go to get their nightlife on. I’d recommend instead to head to Bassac Lane, which has got to be one of the hippest places I’ve been in Asia to drink. I saw an incredibly eclectic mix of people; I found myself wondering if many were perhaps international spies, criminals, gangsters, billionaires or adventurers. It felt like a bit like what I romanticize Tangier must have been like in the 50s and 60s. I found myself wondering if Bassac Lane was the modern day Interzone.
In Siem Reap, there’s almost no way to escape Pub Street, where happy hour starts at 50 cents American. Brilliant. While super touristy, it’s a great place to sit and have too many pints while club music and bass blares away at deafening decibels.